Warning: Spoilers Galore,
In Case Anybody Cares
I love historical drama — and the more accurate it is, the more I adore it. If you know me and my love of research, or if you’ve read my own first novel, then you know that historical details are almost everything in those types of fiction. Sure you can arrange some of historical details for dramatic purposes, but any minor rearrangements can’t take away from the impetus driving the tale forward. (Purists will still complain if the details are “tweaked.”) The rest of what you need for strong historical fiction is brilliant character development, powerful dialogue, and an intriguing plot whose conflict keeps the viewers or readers riveted to the story.
And all of these things have to be present from the opening moments of the show.
HBO’s Deadwood — winner of 8 Emmy Awards (nominated for over 3 times that many) and a Golden Globe, created and written by David Milch — and ShowTime’s The Tudors — winner of Emmys, Golden Globes, and 7 Irish Film Awards; created and written by Michael Hirst — are excellent examples of the critically acclaimed and award-winning artistic drama you get when everything in an historical work is done right.
When I first saw the ads for FX’s new series The Bastard Executioner, written by Sons of Anarchy creator-writer Kurt Sutter, I got very excited. Not that I’d seen his previous show, but I’d heard good things about it, and it lasted 7 years. In TV-land, that’s several lifetimes unless your show is a sit-com. Though The Bastard Executioner isn’t based on any actual historical characters, as were Deadwood and The Tudors, I still love that time period in history, so I was looking forward to it.
Unfortunately, the two-hour premiere of The Bastard Executioner was about an hour and 59 minutes too long. Basically, even the opening credit sequence, with a super-corny song with silly lyrics, was no good. The miniature-script headings, which were, I suppose, telling us where scenes were taking place, were unreadable.
Those two things alone should have served as warning signs. I should have just turned off the TV and gotten an actual historical non-fiction book on the role of official executioners during the Middle Ages throughout Europe.
But did I do it?
Instead, I suffered through one of the bloodiest, worst acted, worst written, most predictable premieres in television history.
The only show I’ve ever seen that was worse than the premiere of The Bastard Executioner was the entire second season of True Detective, complete with mumbling monologues/dialogues, irrelevant scenes and details, and mostly incomprehensible plot.
The Opening Scene
Okay, so there’s this guy, lying in his bed, dreaming, and it’s obvious from his surroundings that he’s a poor peasant. Of course, all peasants were poor back then, and if he’s not in a castle, he’s probably a peasant. Anyway, the guy is dreaming. He’s in a horrendous battle. Very bloody. Everybody’s dying except him, but he’s seriously wounded. It’s starting to remind me of Game of Thrones with all its violence, but this is more graphic, if you can believe it.
Camera keeps flashing back to him twitching on bed so you know it’s a dream.
A dream of a flashback, I guess, since we later discover that the dreamer, who is the protagonist, was in King Edward I’s war against the rebellious Scots (think Braveheart only without Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Sophie Morceau, or any memorable lines).
Then weird stuff happens: an angel without any wings or anything — basically just a girl dressed in white with really long white hair — stands over his wounded body and starts talking to him. Something about his destiny or his fate or his wound, I’m not sure, because the dialogue was mumbled so often, I thought I was being treated to an historical version of True Detective. I had to keep turning up the volume to hear the dialogue. Some other critics said she was telling him to put down his blade and take up another path.
So… not kill people as a soldier but kill them as an Executioner?
Before I could figure out this conundrum, this humongous CGI dragon comes flying out of the sky at the wounded guy, and I think, oh, no… Game of Thrones.
I turn to my boyfriend and say, “I hope this guy’s still dreaming and that dragon’s not supposed to be real because I really and truly do not like fantasy.”
And my boyfriend says, “He’s dreaming?”
The Men in the Village
I don’t know when Hollywood — TV-land or Film-world — decided it would be cool or convenient or neat to have most of the characters look almost exactly alike. You know, so viewers wouldn’t have to figure out which person is which. Because that is some major hard work, trying to determine what actor is playing which character, especially when no one says anyone’s names, and the dialogue is mumbled, and they’re all going to die in about fifteen minutes anyway.
Okay, so the guy is a peasant returned from the war — and thank god the dragon was a dream, ’cause I’m not a big fan of dragons in my historical fiction and dragons is one of the main reasons I don’t watch Game of Thrones — and this PTSD-war-survivor has this preggers wife, whose name I still don’t know, but I know how to recognize her because she’s the only blonde in the show, and the only peasant woman who’s pregnant in an age of no birth-control whatsoever.
But you don’t have to worry about her or get emotionally attached or even care what her name is ’cause she’s gonna get killed, and somebody — in one of the most gruesome scenes ever — is going to cut out her unborn baby and lay it on top of her body, which is on top of the bodies of all the other villagers.
Danny Sapani (last seen in Penny Dreadful) is the only villager I could tell from the rest of them, but I never did catch his name. Or his wife’s name, but she was the only other “Moor” in the village, and they were only “allowed” to live there with all the white guys and gals because they’d converted to Catholicism (this is before the Reformation, so the only Christianity that existed was Catholicism).Oh, wait: my bad.
I could tell Sheep-Boy from the rest of the men because he had dreadlocks and was always walking around talking to the sheep with whom he has sexual intercourse. No, he doesn’t do it with all the sheep in the village, as she suspects. Only with her. With one sheep: he’s faithful.
The Initial Conflict
There’s a Big Bad Baron in a castle with a wife who doesn’t want to have his kid, so, after he has graphic but completely un-erotic sexual intercourse with her, she goes straight away down to the river and tries to wash out all “his seed.” Her handmaid is in on the deception, but hubby is not. His wife is distinguishable from the other women in the show because she lives in the castle and wears lots of jewelry. I didn’t catch her name.
Lady Baron, I guess.
Baroness, the other characters call her.
With the complicity and encouragement of his chamberlain — played by Stephen Moyer, using what I assume is his real accent since he’s British, and who was the only actor I actually recognized — who gets to be in the room with the Baron when he defecates into his chamber-pot (hidden beneath a seat-less chair in deference to his position; you know, so he doesn’t have to squat), the Big Bad Baron is going to once again raise taxes on the poor peasants.
The men of the village of the dragon-dreaming protagonist don’t like this at all, so they go out on raids, wearing hoods, killing the Baron’s men.Because, you see, historically, all the Barons used to put up with that kind of thing.
The Excuse for Gratuitous
and Graphic Violence Scene
Uh-oh. The Baron and his Chamberlain do not, in fact, like such rebellion, and somebody sees the Sheep-Boy, who seems more than mildly mentally impaired, since he runs right out in front of the Baron’s tax-collector without his hood.
Because of Sheep-Boy’s beaver skin vest, the Baron and his people figure out exactly which village — in all of Wales — the rebels come from.
Led by the Baron and Chamberlain and the Chamberlain’s brother — the Shire Reeve, from which Sheriff is derived, in case you’re interested in the history of the English language — and whom even the Chamberlain doesn’t like, all the Baron’s men head out to the village and kill every single person there.
And then, in case the returning 7 hooded men would miss the fact that the Baron was not happy about their killing the Baron’s tax-collectors, they burn the entire village.
Except for all the bodies, which were left piled, un-burnt and not even covered with ash, in the center of the place, with the blonde, formerly preggers wife on top, with her abdomen cut open and the fetus lying on top of it.I gotta tellya: when those men came back, and her husband and then her father picked up the unborn, full-term fetus, holding it close to them, but not too close because it was still connected by the umbilical cord, weeping, I almost threw up my dinner.
And that was knowing that the baby was just a plastic doll or something.
Baron 1. Rebels 0.
The Weird-o Twist
The blonde preggers wife wasn’t really killed by one of the Baron’s men.
She ran off into the woods and one of the men pursued her, but she begged — not for her own life but for the life of her unborn child, which, of course, amounts to nothing since he wasn’t about to deliver the baby and then kill her. The Baron’s guy yanked off her cross-necklace (everybody was wearing them, but hers was a little more fancy which I guess becomes important later on) and tells her to run.
Then someone who is not revealed, initially, to the viewers comes up to her in the woods; she recognizes him, says, “You?”, and he stabs her with a unique knife, killing her and the baby.
Later, in a freaky cave scene, you discover that the guy is the scarred mute (played by creator-writer Kurt Sutter) who accompanies the village Healer (played by Sutter’s real-life wife, Katy Sagal, only with some strange, unidentifiable accent), and she’s nude with all these symbols tattooed on her back, and she makes him take of his mask for some nefarious or sexual purpose.
Is the Healer going to have some impact on the major protagonist guy’s life?
What do you think?
In between all these scenes of violence and death and egregious bloodiness, we get treated to the Official Executioner. Yes, those were real jobs in them days, folks, and were usually hereditary. We were shown a grotesque close-up of a guy being flayed.
He was not going silently into his personal hell-on-earth, lemme tellya.
And if it’s not bad enough that the Executioner tortures and kills people for his livelihood, he’s totally abusive — in every way possible — to his wife, who’s got a newborn,
and to his 7-or-8-year-old son, whom he repeatedly calls “weak and stupid,” or “stupid and weak,” while physically abusing them both as well.
Somehow, somewhere, the Executioner gets killed.
I must have missed it, or I couldn’t distinguish him from the other characters, because I’m not sure how he died, but he did.
Trust me on this: the Official Executioner is dead.
More Blood & Guts
Now bring the Baron out for more revenge…
Uhm… ’cause his tax collectors got killed?
No, they killed everyone in the village and burned it for that…
Uhm… ’cause he didn’t manage to get the original 7 guys in hoods?
Yeah, that must be the reason this completely unnecessary and starting-to-get-redundant extended “battle” scene was inserted.
The Baron and his guys, all appropriately armed and armored like the real knights they are, confront the 7 now-unhooded rebels in a dry field of some sort, when suddenly, like a gazillion peasant men — more than the entire country of England ever had, let alone a single shire in Wales — step out all around the Baron and his bad guys and kill them all.
Those peasants, armed with clubs and scythes and fists, I guess, managed to kill the King’s protected and sponsored Baron and all of his men, despite all their fierce, warrior weapons and superior training.
Rebels 1. Baron 1.
What’s the Martin Guerre Connection?
How is all this related to Daniel Vigne’s 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre, you may ask? Here’s the description of the film, from IMDb.
Years after his family thought he died, Martin Guerre (Gérard Depardieu) returns home from the Hundred Years’ War. But is he really Martin Guerre? His wife, Bertrande de Rols (Nathalie Baye), has her doubts, as do some of her fellow villagers. Guerre’s personality has completely changed; a man who was once angry and sullen is now likable and kind. (emphasis added) As they become convinced they have an impostor on their hands, a local magistrate charges the man with Martin Guerre’s murder.
You never saw that film but it sounds vaguely familiar?
Perhaps you saw Jon Amiel’s 1993 adaptation of Martin Guerre, starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere, Sommersby.
A man returns to his home town after a lengthy absence spent fighting in the US Civil War. Although his apparent character transformation arouses his wife’s and others’ suspicions, (emphasis added) everyone is delighted when his tobacco-growing scheme is profitable for the whole town. Just as he is settling into an idyllic routine with his family, he is accused of the murder of a man killed many years before.
Haven’t figured out how it’s related to The Bastard Executioner?
Here’s another clue: the less well known definition of “bastard” is “fake, false, not authentic, debased, not original,” and, yes, it was in usage in Middle English (from Old French, from Latin), which is when this show takes place.
The major protagonist, now sans preggers wife and unborn child, now sans village, now a really hunted man, is scarred by the “Healer-Witch” with a cross on his face — just as the Official Executioner was, for some unexplained reason — and goes to the Baron’s castle as the Official Executioner, whom no one there had apparently ever met.
The protagonist-turned-faux-executioner is nervous, but the Official Executioner’s wife, just as in The Return of Martin Guerre and its American adaptation Sommersby, knows a good thing when she sees it, and this guy looks a whole lot better than her abusive, assumed-to-be-dead husband. Their boy, who’s old enough to know this guy ain’t his daddy, seems to instinctively understand this, too, so public group-hugs all around for the faux family unit.
The Chamberlain is suspicious.
It’s his job.
There aren’t any other attractive men of her station and class in all of England, I suppose.
Or maybe she gets turned on by the thought of a guy who tortures and kills for a living.
The Chamberlain tries to put doubts about the executioner’s identity into the Baroness’ head. She either doesn’t believe him, doesn’t like the Chamberlain himself, or just doesn’t care.
The Chamberlain does care, however, so he puts the executioner to a “test” of his skills. The Chamberlain accuses his own brother, whom he clearly dislikes from the beginning of their first scene together, of treason. He’s found guilty and is to be executed.
By — you guessed it — The Faux Executioner.
Which, of course, doesn’t have as cool a sound as The Bastard Executioner, though, technically, it means the same thing, especially in that time period (though it’s still used today describing art forgeries, for instance).
Executioner worries. Maybe has internal debates, but viewers are not privy to them. Goes out in the morning, in front of everyone, and I do mean everyone,
but especially in front of the Chamberlain and the Baroness,
and, in a most graphic and horrific scene, cuts off the poor Shire Reeve’s head.
The Show’s Kind of Official Description
Here’s the description of the show, as written by Zachary Cardow, for IMDb:
The Bastard Executioner tells the story of Wilkin Brattle, a 14th century warrior, whose life is forever changed when a divine messenger beseeches him to lay down his sword and lead the life of another man: a journeyman executioner. Set in northern Wales during a time rife with rebellion and political upheaval, Wilkin must walk a tightrope between protecting his true identity while also serving a mysterious destiny. Guided by Annora, a mystical healer whose seeming omniscience keeps Wilkin under her sway; manipulated by Milus Corbett, a devious Chamberlain with grand political aspirations; and driven by a deepening connection with the Baroness Lady Love, Wilkin struggles to navigate political, emotional and supernal pitfalls in his quest to understand his greater purpose.
Somehow, that just doesn’t sound like the show I watched last night.
I’ll leave you with the official, longer FX trailer for The Bastard Executioner — complete with actors’ comments — while I try to figure out when the show in the IMDb description is coming on.
4 Responses to The Bastard Executioner: MARTIN GUERRE meets GAME OF THRONES
I only made it through the first 30 minutes of this show. Your honest description of this mess exactly matches my impression of 30 of the most horrible minutes I have ever endured on television. Excellent analysis, Alexandria. Sorry you had to endure the entire pilot. I love the title of your article as I am a fan of Gerard Depardieu. It is marvelous that after enduring tjis pilot, you still had your wonderful sense of humor intact. Thank you.
I consider you pretty brave for sticking out the first thirty minutes. I simply do not understand how writers do not understand getting and holding the viewers’ attention from the beginning of the show. And blood and guts, battlefield or not, don’t do it for me.
I only thank god they faded to black&white before each commercial, so I could mute the commercials, since FX has the terrible habit of showing the exact same 7 minutes of commercial at each break, and I had the TV so loud, so I could hear the dialogue, that the first group of commercials deafened me.
Always loved The Return of Martin Guerre, and thought Sommersby, which is what most Americans saw, was a very poor adaptation of the original. Glad someone else was actually familiar with it.
Sometimes it takes me a few hours to regain my sense of humor, like after watching the dreadful premiere of The Bastard Executioner, but it usually comes back.
Hugs, my Pat,
Thank you Alex. Thank you for your honest reviews of shows and watching for the rest of us( biting the bullet) so we don’t have to. LOL
Honestly, I could have used some wine to get through that show, but then again, I might have vomited it up during the graphic and endless violent scenes.
How did this ever get approved and funded?